In 2012, Neighborhood Restaurant Group – the Alexandria-headquartered empire of beer bars and beer-savvy restaurants that now includes ChurchKey, The Sovereign, and its brewery Bluejacket – orchestrated its version of a beer festival. Unsurprisingly, the team behind an internationally renowned beer program had some good ideas when it came to such gatherings. And in the years since that inaugural fest, to say that Snallygaster has grown in both size and prestige would be significant understatement.
Last year, Snally (as it’s affectionately known) moved from a Navy Yard lot to Pennsylvania Avenue, taking over a prime piece of real estate adjacent to the Newseum and the National Gallery of Art, with the U.S. Capitol looming regally in background. Curated by Neighborhood Restaurant Group beer director Greg Engert, the beer list was distinguished not just for its scope – 125 breweries! 400 beers! – but for the unrelenting quality. Few if any U.S. beer directors are more well connected than Engert, and he pulls every string for Snallygaster, bringing in out-of-market breweries like Monkish, Suarez Family, Other Half, Bellwoods, Foam, Hill Farmstead, and Great Notion, along with beers that don’t otherwise leave their home markets, perhaps most notably Perennial’s coveted spiced imperial stout Barrel-Aged Abraxas.
These beers and more were enjoyed on a brisk mid-October afternoon, a change from previous years when the festival had been held in early September, leaving attendees exposed to the wrath of Swampra, the god of D.C. heat and humidity. Coupled with a daylong line-up of live music and copious high-end food options (a mix of NRG pop-up restaurants and food trucks), the afternoon left the undeniable impression that Snallygaster is no longer simply DC’s premiere beer festival. It belongs in the same conversation with the country’s elite festivals like the nomadic “Shelton Fest,” the Firestone Walker Invitational, and Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Day. And that is a reflection of the fact that Engert, Assistant Beer Director Tim Liu, and the rest of Neighborhood Restaurant Group have never rested on their laurels when it comes to Snallygaster.
Of course, this mentality also means that they would hold the 2018 festival to the same scrutiny as past iterations. So, last November, the Snallygaster team gathered to discuss how to improve the event for 2019.
“A few weeks after the event happens, we always get together for a recap of how it went, what was great, and what we would change,” Engert says. “Snallygaster changes every year in some way, shape, or form. Ultimately, as with everything we do, we’re always looking to evolve and adjust our offerings to better serve people’s wants. We’re not reinventing the wheel each time, but we examine everything.”
On Tuesday, after two months of rigorous behind-the-scenes planning, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group announced the 2019 date for Snallygaster, along with one big change. Later that day, I chatted with Engert about the announcement, along with some details not yet shared elsewhere. Here are the big takeaways.
Mid-October and Pennsylvania Ave. are here to stay
Just as last year, Snallygaster will be held the second Saturday in October. In 2019, that happens to fall on October 12. (Tickets go on sale Friday, June 7, via the Snallygaster website.)
“If something works out right, we don’t want to change that ever again,” says Engert. “October is perfect, because frankly it gives us a better chance at avoiding the heat. That was killing us in September.”
Additionally, sticking to the same day annually provides certainty to the region’s breweries, many of whom hold their own fall events. (No one wins if Aslin’s anniversary party or RAR’s Dank Day conflict with Snallygaster.)
There was also need to debate returning to the apex of the Federal Triangle. It’s a more expensive spot than Navy Yard, specifically as it relates to security, but the price is easily justified.
“We’ve wanted to be in a place like this since day one – it’s so amazing,” says Engert. “Thankfully, we garnered a reputation for hosting festivals very well, and that put us in the position to get approval for the first time last year.”
Snallybucks are being replaced by unlimited tastings
For seven years, Snallygaster sold beer utilizing a ticketing system – often referred to as “Snallybucks.” Each beer was assigned a value based largely on the cost of the keg, which itself was determined by the brewery and distributor. A 4oz pour of Barrel-Aged Abraxas might run you 8 tickets, but 7oz of a more readily available beer like Bell’s Oktoberfest could cost just 3 tickets. If you ran out of the Snallybucks allotted with your festival entrance fee before you were sated, you had to buy more.
After each Snallygaster, Neighborhood Restaurant Group sends a survey to attendees. In recent years, this ticketing system increasingly drew the frustration of some of those attendees.
“The nagging complaint was about how you have to re-up your tickets,” says Engert. “When we first started out, it was something that people responded to positively, because they could control their festival-going experience a little more in terms of how they wanted to spend their money and whatnot.”
The beer director acknowledges that the market has changed. Unlimited-tasting festivals, both at the mainstream and high-end levels, have become the norm. In 2018, the Snallygaster team considered moving away from Snallybucks, but it worried about changing the festival too much. This year, Engert returned to the idea with renewed vigor.
“We really looked at the financials of what it would cost us to put on the exact same event with an unlimited format, and we realized we could make it work,” he shares. “It’ll be an easier event to attend. You’ll pay more for merch or food if you want it, but your beer is taken care of. You won’t have to get in line for tickets. It’ll be easier on the brewers and volunteers – they won’t have to be constantly taking tickets, and we won’t have to count tickets at the end of the day. It’ll make it a cleaner, more efficient festival.”
General admission tickets will cost $50 and gain you access to this wonderland from 2:00pm to 6:00pm. VIP tickets clock in at $100, which comes with a noon entrance (and thus a bonus two hours).
As always, no compromising on beer quality
While online reaction to unlimited tastings has been generally ecstatic (cue the gifs), a few online social media expressed concern that the model would lead to a drop-off in the quality of the beer list. Their logic was that breweries wouldn’t participate or send those rare “whales” because unlimited-tasting events are somehow less prestigious.
This idea ignores that fact that Neighborhood Restaurant Group buys its beer from participating breweries (rather than relying on donated kegs). Also, if there is some taint associated with unlimited-tasting festivals, it doesn’t appear to be damaging literally all of the other the upper-tier beer festivals mentioned above. And while Engert won’t say this, it fails to acknowledge the massive clout that the beer director has amassed in this industry. It’s why many of these wholly out-of-market breweries started sending beer to Snallygaster in the first place.
What Engert will say is that he would never dream of compromising the caliber of the festival’s offerings.
“We wouldn’t do this festival if it meant we had to change the beers,” he tells me. “The beers come first; we build the festival around them.”
Along those lines…
There are already 17 new breweries
This year will see the addition of dozens more breweries, 17 of which are already confirmed.
At the top of that list is Oregon’s de Garde, one of the country’s most revered producers of spontaneous ales. On the other side of the country and the stylistic spectrum: Bissell Brothers, hazy IPA specialists and one of the East Coast’s true hype monsters. Along those lines, Snallygaster is adding Pennsylvania’s Dancing Gnome, Chicago’s Mikerphone, New Jersey’s Kane Brewing, and Los Angeles’ Highland Park. Side note: Highland Park also makes wonderful lagers, including one of the best Italian pilsners I’ve had.
Speaking of lagers: Start your engines, brewers, because Bierstadt Lagerhaus is joining Snallygaster this year.
“Every year, we keep the great brewers we have,” says Engert, “and then we add to it.”
Plastic cups are out and pour sizes are changing
At last year’s Snallygaster, attendees typically had the option of buying a 7oz or 14oz pour. For the rarest of finds, pours were limited to 4oz.
In 2019, the festival will give them the options of a 4oz pour (essentially standard for festivals like the Firestone Walker Invitational, and twice as much as SAVOR)… and, remarkably, an 8oz pour as well.
“I could see people just want to have sips all day,” says Engert, “but if they want to have a little bit more of a beer, we’ll let them do that.”
The beer director says that Bluejacket will likely also be producing 16oz cans for the occasion. The target audience: People who want to watch live music whilst drinking a beer without having to refill their glass every 10 minutes.
Speaking of glass, the somewhat maligned plastic sippy cups will be gone this year. It’s a move aligns with the new fill flexibility, in addition to one that’s more environmentally friendly. Also, plastic cups suck. Instead, attendees will get an at-least-8oz tasting glass, which they’ll be able to rinse at stations around the festival (should they choose to do so).
Naturally, some of the rarer finds will be limited to 4oz – an effort to make sure they find the largest audience possible. Still, don’t expect all of the beers to survive the two-hour VIP session.
“In years past, some people would complain that some things ran out by the time it got to general admission,” says Engert. “But that’s why we have VIP and it costs more. I almost think the starker difference in price really drives that home. It’s like, ‘If you’re in VIP, you’re going to get your hands on this stuff and it’s amazing.’ If you’re in VIP, you’re also going to have tons of elbow room, you’re going to drink every beer you want to drink for two hours, and after that you can decide if you want to stick around for the music and everything else or if you want to go home.’”
Whatever choice you make, don’t forget that Snallygaster admission proceeds go to the the nonprofit Arcadia Center For Sustainable Food & Agriculture.